Contrary to what you might think, the most important temple for the people of Mandalay is not on or around Mandalay Hill. Rather, it's a rather unassuming temple somewhat hidden off side streets several blocks south and slightly west of the Fort.
The Maha Muni ("Great Sage") Pagoda was built about 75 years before the formal founding of Mandalay. It was built to house the great Maha Muni Buddha image, which was taken as booty when King Bodawpaya conquered Rakhain (Arakan), the fertile western coastal plains of modern-day Myanmar. Today, the image is highly revered by the local people, and no mater what time of day you visit, there will be dozens of people paying their respects to the image.
According to legend, the Maha Muni image was cast in the Buddha's own image during his lifetime. However, archaeologists say it was most likely made more than 600 years after the Buddha's death, around 150 AD. Burmese kings made several attempts to destroy or cart of the image in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but it wasn't until 1784 that a force of 30,000 men managed to capture the image and take it back to Burma.
The capital of Burma in 1784 was Amarapura, a city 20 kilometers south of the present city of Mandalay. North of Amarapura (hence its position south of Mandalay) King Bodawpaya had a magnificent seven layered pagoda built to house the Maha Muni image, which sits on a diamond encrusted platform. The pagoda burned down in 1884, but it was soon rebuilt with nineteenth century details.
The Maha Muni image was cast in metal. The "lumpy" appearance of the lower part of the statue today is due to the generations of devotees who have adhered offerings of small squares of gold leaf to the image. The making of gold leaf is a cottage industry in Mandalay, and a visit to a workshop can prove interesting. Over the years, rich businessmen who feel they owe some of their success to the intervention of the image have adorned the neck with countless golden amulets and precious gems.